Tuesday night featured the 2013 Champions Classic, one of the best regular season college basketball events to ever take place, with four of the nation’s top five teams participating in the doubleheader. To begin the evening, No. 2 Michigan State defeated No. 1 Kentucky, 78-74.
The opening matchup went as many people figured it would go. The veteran Spartans overwhelmed the young Wildcats and jumped out to a 10-0 lead after 3:15, but the Wildcats eventually found their footing and clawed back. They went down by as many as 15 points after Gary Harris’ layup with two minutes left in the first half, but by halftime they were back within 12.
“I knew they would start that way,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari. “I said, ‘Let’s hope it’s not 15-0, but I bet it gets to 12.'”
Calipari expected his team to be rattled early on because the entire rotation is made up of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores.
“They’ve never been in an environment like this,” he said. This kind of tournament is great for college basketball. It is terrific for the teams. It is just tough for really young teams.”
In the second half, freshman Julius Randle, one of the top NBA prospects in the nation, put Kentucky on his back and led a rally. He scored the first six points of the second period to cut the lead to 44-38, and with 4:48 left he tied the score at 66 with a pair of free throws. In the final minute, Randle scored in the post against three Michigan State defenders to put Kentucky down 76-74, but Branden Dawson’s tip-in of Denzel Valentine’s missed floater with 10 seconds left clinched the deal for the Spartans.
The Wildcats’ free-throw woes doomed them, as they shot 14-of-26 (53.8%) in the second half and 20-of-36 (55.6%) for the game.
“My hope is I’m in the office at night and it’s 10:30, and they walk 15 steps across the street to go into the practice facility and I see guys shooting [free throws] on their own,” Calipari said. “Getting to the foul line and missing is almost demoralizing.”
Kentucky was also constantly lost on transition defense, allowing 21 fast break points to the Spartans.
“We don’t have enough pride in our defense right now, but that’s natural,” Calipari said. “We’re going to be fine. I’ve got three and a half months to get this right.”
Randle finished the second half with 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting and nine rebounds. For the game, he had 27 points and 13 rebounds.
“He’s a great player,” said sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who serves as a veteran on this young team. “When he gets it going, we look for him. He had it going tonight, so we just kept on feeding him.”
The big blemish on Randle’s night was his eight turnovers, which appalled Calipari.
“Julius had eight turnovers for one reason: he held the ball. Then he tried to go against five guys; you can’t play basketball that way,” Calipari said. “The only time they’re stopping him is when you hold the ball. So quit holding the ball.”
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was very impressed by Randle’s performance.
“What I loved about [Randle], he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty, and he wanted to put them on his shoulders,” said Izzo. “And for a freshman that speaks volumes.”
But Izzo actually didn’t have to look farther than his own locker room to find an impressive performer.
Senior point guard Keith Appling turned in possibly the best performance of his career with 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and four steals. Appling struggled at points last year, and he was considered Michigan State’s weak link in the preseason. However, on Tuesday night he delivered at a championship level.
“Watching other great point guards like Tony Parker and Chris Paul, that really helped me out,” Appling said about his offseason improvement.
Sophomore Gary Harris, who is fully healthy after playing through a shoulder injury last season, added 20 points and three steals in the backcourt. He has scored 20 points in each of Michigan State’s two games after having only four such performances all of last season. Harris was on fire in the first half, scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting, but he needed seven field-goal attempts to score his five points in the second half.
“I took some bad shots in the second half, but I took a lot of good ones in the first,” Harris said. He also noted a clear change in the game’s style due to the NCAA’s rule changes that emphasize hand-checks and block/charge calls. “It’s definitely harder defensively, but it really helps us out offensively. So it’s kind of bittersweet. We’ve got to take a little and give a little. Once we get adjusted, I think we can use it to our advantage.”
Senior forward Adreian Payne was a roll in the first half scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. His playing time was limited due to foul trouble, and he finished with 15 points, four rebounds, and a block.
Lastly, Dawson posted eight points, nine rebounds, and four steals. The 6’6″ junior was ferocious defensively and on the boards.
“Branden was the unsung hero,” Izzo said.”He had to guard Randle and probably did as good a job as anybody for the time being. The rebounds, the steals he got early. I thought he had more than [four steals] because he knocked so many loose. Branden Dawson is starting to play more like the guy I recruited.”
Although Michigan State has much more experience than Kentucky, Izzo also does not see his team as anywhere near a finished product.
“[Kentucky is] going to get a lot better, but don’t think we’re not going to get a lot better,” he said. “We didn’t play great. It’s not like we just made every jump shot. They missed some free throws, but we missed some layups.”
The victory marked Michigan State’s first in the regular season against a No. 1 ranked team since the Spartans beat Wisconsin on February 20, 2007.
“It’s a great win, but at the same time we didn’t accomplish anything tonight,” Appling said. “It’s still early in the season, and we still have opportunities to get better.”
Harris echoed that sentiment.
“This game doesn’t mean anything to us,” he said. “We didn’t win a Big Ten championship. We didn’t win a national championship. We love to play games like that, and we got the win which is good. But there’s still a lot of things to work on.”
Izzo thought his star players were downplaying the game a bit but at heart agreed with what they were saying.
“Of the course the game matters. When Magic Johnson comes back for a game and flies in from L.A., it matters,” he said. “Our program needed a program win, and that was one. I think what [Appling and Harris] are trying to say is it’s really not going to matter. If we win the game, we have 10,000 Tweets when we get home. If we lose the game, we have 100,000. That’s the way it is.”
Whether or not the game matters to the Spartans, it will matter to AP voters, who will almost definitely vote Michigan State the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 on Monday, as long as they take care of business against Columbia on Friday night.
“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” said Appling. “Not the beginning.”